Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethical ePunditry?: The Role of Expertise in Online Opinion-Making

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethical ePunditry?: The Role of Expertise in Online Opinion-Making

Article excerpt


"No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity. "- Pierre Levy, 1997, quoted in Jenkins, 2006, 139

Almost 20 years have passed since Levy discussed the potential of the Internet to become a vast knowledge community. He predicted that it would be a participatory hub, where users could "connect, consult and explore" ideas, sharing what they knew with one another. The connective and social cultures developed by Web 2.0 technologies have meant that some of Levy's predictions have already been realized. Through blogging and vlogging (video blogs) knowledge, opinion, and information can be circulated into the public domain on various sites and platforms online. We term this assorted output "ePunditry" (Forrest and Duff, 2016).

Over the past two decades, blogging and other forms of user-generated content have grown from being a niche form of communication to a ubiquitous practice (Garden, 2011). This growth has also been reflected by an increasing amount of academic scholarship in this area, which has primarily focused on blogs and their impact upon traditional media. News and political blogs have received the most attention, rather than other popular topics such as parenting or fashion. This divide is mirrored within the hierarchies of professional journalism too, where news reporting and political expertise are ranked above, for example, lifestyle and sports writing (Rowe, 2007).

These variations in status are significant because they have impacted how the expertise of the ePundit was first presented, positioned, and performed when it was seen to intersect with journalism. In the domains of fashion and sport, bloggers could assert their legitimacy because established hierarchies were far less prominent. At the same time, journalism has also been transformed into a deeply hybridized occupation. Professional roles are now continuously negotiated within various digital spaces and the boundaries of expertise and knowledge are highly fluid (Anderson, 2013). These issues underline the challenges that traditional media face when attempting to assert authority over the control of expertise (Lewis, 2012) within open and participatory environments such as social media.

The prominence and popularity of blogging has altered the structure of other traditional knowledge hierarchies too. In the newly established atmosphere of "democratized authority" on the Internet (Whitehead 2015, 130), professional communities that were formerly closed to outsiders have become more open. Now "everyone," as Levy (1997) notes, no matter their level of expertise, has the opportunity to share what they know online. The insider/outsider dichotomy of the traditional expert paradigm (Walsh, 2003) with its accompanying top-down communication model no longer seems sustainable within this newly forming digital ecosystem.

This article explores how opinion and expertise are communicated and performed across science, sport, fashion, and parenting domains. Despite their popularity with readers, these subject areas have received less attention from scholars. It draws upon in-depth interview data to understand how opinion is circulated in the Internet age and considers the creation and gathering of knowledge by these different groups of ePundits. In addition, the varied ethical implications of how knowledge is dispersed across platforms will also be considered.

When using the term performance, we are not suggesting that ePunditry is inauthentic. In a similar approach to Butler's (1993, xii) work on gender which positions performativity as a "reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names" we believe that ePunditry is more than simply writing (or saying) an opinion. It is a constellation of varied and complex enactments that utilize different tactics (textual, visual, and aural) depending on the domain. Each ePundit finds unique ways to perform his or her opinion online and engage readers, while at the same time shaping public discourse on a particular topic. …

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